I could never do an air traffic controller’s job – imagine the stress of having to schedule the flight paths of hundreds of giant flying pieces of metal so that they don’t crash into each other, run out of fuel, or get behind schedule. South Winds Games and Reflexive figured out the fact that all this coordinating and juggling could make a decent time management game, and as it turns out, they were right.

Airport Mania: First Flight
offers a nice change of pace in that for once you aren’t controlling a pretty young girl. Instead, gameplay takes place in eight different airports across 84 levels where you’ll be directing planes as they land, unload and load passengers and take off again – as well as painting, refuelling or making repairs as needed.

These actions are accomplished through some deft mouse-clicking and planning ahead. As a plane circles the airport, you can get it to land by clicking on a free runway. Then, you must taxi the plane over to a gate to unload passengers and pick up new ones. If the plane needs refuelling or repairs (as indicated by the appropriate icon flashing overhead), then you can direct it to the appropriate garage area. When finished, click on another free runway to make the plane take off and collect the last of your cash.

If things get especially hectic you can direct a place into a layover area to wait until a runway or gate frees itself up. Like Diner Dash, where you get bonus points for matching customers of a certain color to tables of the same color, you get a bonus multiplier in Airport Mania if you match a plane with the same colored gate. In later levels you earn the ability to paint planes a different color to keep your multiplier going. You can also pull off combo landings and take-offs by doing more than one of them in rapid succession on the same runway.

In between levels you can buy upgrades for the airport such as new and improved gates, runways and layover spaces, the ability to play an in-flight movie to make all circling planes happier or to serve food to please all grounded aircraft, short- and long-range radar to see which color of planes are approaching, and a fan to blow fog away. Interestingly, you can also sell back anything you’ve purchased at any time if you realize you don’t need it after all or want to try a new strategy.

There are various types of aircraft, from the tiny Puddle Jumper to an assortment of large passenger jets. The planes are cute, with little eyes and mouths and a range of facial expressions, and if you leave them waiting too long they’ll start to fume and may even fly away to look for another airport. Ultimately, however, it’s hard to tell one type of plane from the next, and even with the "human" facial features and personalities the planes don’t offer the same entertainment as the eccentric customers that appear in a typical time management game’s restaurant or boutique. The same can be said for functional but unspectacular scenery.

But what Airport Mania may lack in graphical oomph it makes up for where it counts: gameplay. When the game really gets going, the experience is a pleasurably hectic one. Clicking ahead to cue up actions is a big part of the strategy, and it’s immensely satisfying to watch planes zig-zag around each other as they follow a plan that was set up three moves ago. What could easily have turned into a chaotic mess is kept under control by helpful icons that remind you where to click and show you what you’ve cued up. And you can cancel an action at any time by right-clicking.

The game tosses out the odd unexpected event to deal with too, like foggy runways, a helicopter that drops bags of cash when clicked on, and high-priority aircraft that carry organ donations and pregnant women. Occasionally the President’s aircraft may even stop by to be serviced. Needless to say, these planes with special cargo must take priority over the others.

It also pays to click on things in the background since the game is full of fun little Easter eggs to discover, to say nothing of the bonus paper airplane mode to unlock. Rounding out the package is an awards room that keeps track of the various medals and trophies you’ve earned.

Airport Mania: First Flight
is to be commended its fresh approach to the time management genre. Juggling a bunch of aircraft instead of a single waitress, hairstylist or babysitter is an innovation that is both fun and frenetic and works very well – at least when it’s in such capable hands.